I was chatting with some agile coaching colleagues the other day and the topic of agile maturity came up. Particularly for Technology Leaders who are inquiring about agile approaches.

These could be leaders who are new to agile and want to start the transformation OR leaders who are currently engaged in a transformation and looking for assistance.

The questions were around, how to tell:

  • if they truly “get” or understand agility?
  • if they are really “ready” for it?
  • if they are serious about it?
  • if they are a good candidate for a coaching engagement?
  • if they are properly aligned with the agile principles and the principles of the coaching/consulting firm?

Some of the questions focused towards money. In fact, quite a few of them. Questions here were around budgets, the contractual/approval process, and payment terms.

I was almost embarrassed to admit that these are not forefront in my mind when I’m engaging clients. My feeling is that they usually take care of themselves. What I care more about is how I perceive the Inspection Report - February 2017 client’s answers to the first set of questions AND how do they align with my own principles.

I’ve found that if we can achieve mindset, principle, and cultural alignment; then the stage is set for a truly valuable collaboration between the client and me.

But if I focus on money first, not that it’s necessarily a bad thing, it often sets the wrong foundation for my coaching engagement. For example, it certainly doesn’t setup up the:

  • Goal-driven;
  • Partner-based;
  • Shared ownership of results.  

posture that I’m trying to achieve with an agile coaching client.

Given all of that, I thought I’d share some insights into what to look for (and what to avoid) when trying to setup a successful agile coaching engagement with an organizations leadership team. Some of these are words or phrases to look out for, others are conversations to have, and still, others are simple warning signs.

My hope is that they help agile coaches engage in more effective coaching relationships with today’s leaders.

Danger Will Robinson, Warning!

Smells to watch out for…

1. Reorganize, then reorganize again

I often encounter clients who have a regular tempo to their reorganizations. Sometimes 2-3-4x a year. Not only does this create uncertainty and churn in the organization, but it also indicates that leaders are trying to solve their challenges with structures and plans. As the frequency usually indicates, that doesn’t work. Yes, structure matters. And the occasional reorganization might be a heathy reaction to an acquisition or natural growth.

But far more important is setting a culture of team empowerment, trust, encouragement, and innovation. That’s where the results come from. And if there is an organization, do leaders ask the team for advice? That would a very positive sign indeed.

2. There is no I in team

The organizational language matters greatly and is an indicator of the culture. Do the leaders talk about I versus We in their language? Is it about them driving results or inspiring results. And if they’re talking about their teams, how do they do that? Is it respectful and collaborative or is it as some commodity that is driving their business’ value?

And this language check isn’t just for senior leaders. It is insightful as you talk to the management levels of the organization as well to see how they refer to the teams? And even look at the technical teams. Are there “testers” vs. “developers” or are there “team members” who are all pulling towards shared goals? And importantly, listen to the language and observe the behavior. That’s your true indicator.

3. More, more, more

It’s not that uncommon of a goal for organizations to believe that a move to agile approaches will drastically increase their productivity. I’ve seen instances where agile strategies are directly coupled to a highly anticipated 2x – 4x increase in “stuff” produced by the product organization. If this sort of language creeps into your conversations with senior leaders, it means that (1) they really are not that experienced in the value proposition of agility and (2) they’re probably looking for silver bullets of some sort. Both are flawed management postures that need to be adjusted for agile to be successful.

In a nutshell, agile is NOT a direct speed play. I consider it a quality play that, if done well, can produce much more. The emphasis here is on the done well and remembering it’s an outcome of agility.

4. The Agile Project Plan

I once was introduced to a client who had a detailed schedule for their agile deployment across ~100 teams. There were many milestones, weekly tasks, and the expectation that everything would be completed by the end of the year. In other words, they had project-planned their entire agile transformation in excruciating detail. I had to break the news to them that their “thinking” was somewhat flawed. Explaining that agile transformations of this sort should have an overall game plan and some goals, but that trying to predict when the culture would be completely transformed was not realistic.

They really didn’t like that answer and went with another coaching firm. However, I later heard that they were still trying to be agile after 3+ years. Seems as if they were learning the hard way that true transformation is a journey rather than a milestone.

5. The Agile Project Manager

Whenever I see an add online for an “Agile Project Manager” I have to smile to myself. It’s like looking for a lean pig or many other oxymorons. Agility doesn’t need project managers or managers themselves within the teams. The entire idea is to create and foster an environment for trusted, empowered and engaged agile teams. Sure, leadership is required. But it’s distinctly different and the old job descriptions and roles really don’t fit that well.

This is an indication that the organization doesn’t really understand the nuance of role change within agile adoption. Sure, you might be able to help them navigate down this path. But it’s worth exploring how entrenched they are in old versus new roles. BTW: this is directly related to #4.

6. Let me just get my checkbook…

This is the non-participatory pattern, in that leaders think their only role in an agile transformation is paying for it. While I always appreciate being paid, as a coach I’m always looking for a partnership with local leaders. And I’m looking for actions beyond simple words. For example, do they talk in partnered terms? Do we make plans together? And create shared goals together? If not, then they really don’t understand the important role they play in any transformation.

It’s my view that leaders need to LEAD the effort in an agile transformation. Not the coaches. Somehow you must test whether they’re willing to get in the game with you, both in words and actions.

7. The 3-Amigos are missing

It’s incredibly important in any agile transformation for three critical functions to collaborate. That would include Product + Technology + Quality. If these leaders are not already collaborative, then any agile transformation is going to be much more challenging. So, if one silo engages you, ask that the others be involved. If there is any resistance to taking a more holistic view to agility, then the effort will be a challenge. You might even want to test if the 3-Amigos are at least all on-board with the effort? And whether they are equal partners.

Often the technology or development team is leading the effort. And the quality and product folks are sort of along for the ride; not really bought in. This needs some attention because it will drag on your efforts.

8. No Informed or Experienced Champions

I once presented the concept of mapping organizational agile experience to a specific Shu-Ha-Ri scale at the Agile Conference. The idea was to create an experience heat map to see where the agile experience levels were across the organization. It turns out that if an organization, say the Product Management organization, has literally no agile experience within their leadership team, then they’ll (the overall company) will struggle with a holistic transformation. One of the early efforts should then focus on raising the level of the Product Management organizations agile experience.

To continue this thought, then conversations should surround ascertaining the true experience levels of the leadership team. Not so much in words only, but more importantly by observing behavior. Then establish coaching or mentoring pairs where the strong (experienced) help the weak (inexperienced) in the transformation effort.

9. I don’t need your help, the teams do

This is another directional check. If the language you encounter is always team-based coaching needs, then the leaders really don’t understand the nature of an agile transformation. It actually starts with the leaders and then radiates outward to their organizations. The counter-point to this is self-awareness of what they don’t know and the honest request for help for themselves. Not only do they emphasize what they know, but what they don’t know and their weaknesses as well.

One of the greatest challenges for an agile transformation is establishing safety so that individuals (teams, managers, leaders) can say “I don’t know” and “ask for help”. Testing for the level of safety is a crucial early step. As is increasing the safety over time.

10. Do they accept the invitation?

A colleague of mine, Dan Mezick, has introduced something called Open Space Agility. It’s a way of introducing agile in organizations. One of the cornerstones of OSA, is the notion of inviting folks into agility. That is, instead of telling your teams they’ll be doing it. You invite them into the discussion surrounding why and then ask them to participate in the strategy and tactics that will be used to change. It’s the use of invitation that sends a clear message of inclusion and fosters personal engagement.

From a coaching perspective, I want you to try inviting leaders to become a central participant in their own agile efforts. Trying to establish shared ownership of results and a partnership. Then the key question is – do they accept the invitation? If not, as Ricky Ricardo said, you may have some ‘splaining to do before your efforts will be successful.

Wrapping Up

The subtitle to this article highlighted – smells to watch out for.

I want to circle back to that point. As an agile coach, I think it’s one of our first responsibilities to assess the coaching landscape. To determine if our clients are ready to receive our services? And to assess the success possibilities.

If we’re focused on agile as a transformation play and not simply a revenue generation mechanism, then we should be sensitive to the landscape. I hope these patterns help you to ascertain your future client engagement potential just a little better.

Oh, and look for a follow-up to this blog post where I explore two models that can also be of immense help in assessing the landscape before you land. One is the Frederic Laloux's organizational cultural model and the other is Bill Joiner's leadership agility model.  

Stay agile my friends!